Study Guide

Aleksandr Herzen

Aleksandr Herzen Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: As one of the “fathers” of the Russian intelligentsia, Herzen urged an increased pace of Westernization for Russia, yet harbored a Slavophile attraction for the village commune. From his offices in London, he edited the influential émigré newspaper Kolokol (the bell) from 1857 to 1866, thereby helping to shape the direction of Russian radical opinion.

Early Life

Aleksandr Herzen was the illegitimate son of Ivan Alekseyevich Yakovlev, of a distinguished aristocratic family, and of Louise Ivanovich Haag, a German daughter of a minor official from Württemberg. The name “Herzen” was given him by his father to indicate that he was the product of matters of the “heart,” as was his elder and also illegitimate brother, Yegor Herzen.

In the family home on Arbat Street in Moscow, young Herzen was isolated from many children, but he developed a close friendship with Nikolay Ogaryov, with whom he developed a lifelong partnership. Attracted to the Romanticism of Friedrich Schiller, the two boys took an oath to avenge the five Decembrist rebels executed by Czar Nicholas I after the abortive uprising of 1825. Both entered the University of Moscow in 1829, and Herzen joined the department of natural sciences. At the university, he also acquired a deep interest in history, philosophy, and politics. His circle of friends included Ogaryov, Nikolai Satin, Vadim Passek, Nikolai Kh. Ketscher, and Anton Savich. These friends reflected a popular mystical bent for politics, and they avidly read the works of Friedrich Schelling and Saint-Simon, espousing the radical democracy of brotherly love, idealism, and even socialism. In 1834, following a critical remark about the czar which was reported to the police, Herzen was arrested, jailed for nearly a year, and exiled to Perm and Viatka.

Life’s Work

In 1838, after three years in exile, he married Natalya Alexandrovna Zakharina in Vladimir, and the next year they had a son, Aleksandr, Herzen’s only surviving male heir. The czar pardoned Herzen in 1839, and he entered state service in Novgorod, partly to qualify for noble status and partly to acquire the rights of inheritance. His work caused him to travel often to St. Petersburg, where he quarreled with Vissarion Grigoryevich Belinsky over the ideas of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Ironically, Belinsky abandoned Hegelian thought shortly before Herzen’s own conversion to that system. Herzen won the admiration of Belinsky, however, when he published two installments of his early memoirs, Zapiski odnogo molodogo cheloveka (1840-1841; notebooks of a certain young man).

In 1840, Herzen again ran afoul of the authorities and was arrested, only to be released owing to his wife’s illness. It was about this time that he rejected his wife’s religious inspiration for Hegel’s more radical thought, blaming police harassment for his wife’s new illness and the subsequent death of their second child. He abandoned the Idealism of Schelling for the realism of Hegel and a materialist worldview; hence, he was regarded as a Left-Hegelian. He wrote Diletantizm v nauke (1843; dilettantism and science), an essay reflecting his new radicalism. His newfound hostility toward religion and all officialdom caused difficulties with his wife.

From 1842 to 1846, Herzen formed a new circle of friends in Moscow, including Ketscher, Satin, Vasily Petrovich Botkin, E. F. Korsh, Timofei Granovski, Mikhail Shchepkin, and Konstantin Kavelin. Belinsky and his St. Petersburg friends were sometimes in attendance. Although an avowed admirer of Western socialist thought, Herzen was increasingly attracted to the Russian peasant and the commune, central to the thought of the Slavophile community. The Slavophile attraction to religion and disdain for the West kept Herzen from entering their circles. In 1845-1846, Herzen published Pisma ob izuchenii prirody (letters on the study of nature), which combined his interest in science and philosophy.

In 1846, Herzen inherited a substantial fortune from his father, including a Moscow house and 500,000 rubles. That same year, he left Russia, never to return. His wife, his three children, his valet, and two of his friends escorted him to the West. The year of his departure, he published a novel, Kto vinovat? (1845-1846; Who Is to Blame?, 1978), in which he paid his homage to George Sand and the women’s movement. In Europe, Herzen read deeply the socialist literature of Louis Blanc, Charles Fourier, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. There followed Pisma iz Frantsii i Italii (1854; letters from France and Italy), Vom andern Ufer (1850; From the Other Shore, 1956), “Lettre à M. Jules Michelet” (1851),...

(The entire section is 1961 words.)